A Day at the Races
Who doesn't love a hot tootsie-frootsie ice cream?
Of the Marx Brothers it is Harpo this time that shines. Last year in A Night at the Opera it was Groucho, though of course Harpo's final swing on the scenery ropes was the seal of that picture's success. And Groucho is far from negligible now; as horse doctor, as medical examiner, as bookbuyer, and as the entertainer of a blonde whose affected "Thank You" he returns in such full measure, he is still to be felt somehow as the brains of A Day at the Races (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Brains are always evident in anything these brothers do, no matter how silly it seems, and one always instinctively supposes that the creative burden has been borne by the deep-voiced humbug with the cigar and the mustache. In other words it is impossible to imagine A Day at the Races without Dr. Groucho in it and behind it. One would even miss Chico, who ordinarily is to either of his brothers as one is to ten. But it is Harpo that one will remember longest, because in this film he has managed as never before to braid a kind of beauty into his lunacy, and indeed to bestow upon the whole preposterous business a sheen of perfection. The film is as funny as any of its predecessors, and in addition it is more charming, more lovable. It places the Marx Brothers clearly among the few fine comedians of our day.
It is not at all easy to say what new thing Harpo contributes in the present case. The firm of Marx could get along very nicely without Harpo's harp and Chico's piano, just as it could dispense with amorous tenors and the other baggage it seems to think it must carry forever. The advance is perhaps in degree rather than in kind; Harpo is more of something. He is more the innocent, the natural. For no good dramatic or narrative reason, it must be confessed, a door is opened in the racing stable where the tenor's horse is kept and we learn that a village of Negroes exists outside-exists so that Harpo can play on it, and play an infinitely subtler tune than he has ever played on his golden jumbo. He has in his hands a little pipe of some sort, which now he raises to his mouth and blows as he dances out among a few black children who themselves have been dancing in the stable grounds. They change their tune and their step to his; he moves on to other groups who do likewise; and in a few minutes he is leading them all, young and old, in wonderful figures across the film. His pipe is a slight thing and produces scratchy sounds, and nobody needs to be told that he himself is a loon in rags who prances somewhat clumsily among the accomplished dancers he has fascinated. But those facts are irrelevant; or rather they are relevant to the prime fact that the music of Harpo here is in his spirit, not in his hands or any tube of tin. He is the soul of innocence in masquerade, the genius of joy in a coat whose sleeves are too long for him and under a wig whose curls look ridiculously like excelsior. He is a child who comes at last upon the world of children he has always been looking for. He will not have it long. Soon he must be back in the plot, providing a foil for Groucho's ancient cynicism and trying his best to make people understand him.